Hannah’s Story: A Sermon on I Samuel 1:1-20

A sermon preached at United Reformed Church, Clifton, NJ, Sunday October 18, 2020 at 10:30 a.m. To hear this sermon preached follow this link https://www.facebook.com/105243486193626/videos/667695447464180

Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 

She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite  until the day of his death.

I Sam 1:10-11

The dreams we have for ourselves are never big enough.  God’s dreams for us are always bigger than we can imagine. We saw this about a month ago when we were studying Joseph. Do you remember?  Joseph’s dream for himself was a dream of superiority.  He dreamed that his whole family would bow down to him as if he were a king.  But God’s dream for Joseph was one of servanthood.  Yes, God elevated Joseph to the high position of prime minister; yes Joseph’s family bowed down to him 22 years later when they came to buy grain Egypt.  But this was all part of God’s plan for Joseph to save not only his own family, but also all of Egypt and indeed all of peoples surrounding Egypt.  Joseph had to go through great troubles before his dream came true, but when it did he was in a position to bless his family.  Our dreams are usually selfish; but God’s dreams are for us to be a blessing to others. 

The same is true of Hannah.  Her dream was to have son who would remove the grief and shame she felt from being barren.  But she also realized that God had a bigger dream.  What that dream was we shall see later in this sermon.

So who was Hannah?

To begin Hannah was married to a good man.  The opening verses of our scripture inform us that her husband, Elkanah, is from a distinguished family with deep roots. He also must be fairly well off because he can afford to keep two wives.  Hannah is probably his first wife. Scripture specifically notes Elkanah loved Hannah. Now that is significant because the only other time in the Old Testament where a man is said to love his wife is in Genesis 29:18 where it says, “Jacob loved Rachel.”  So Hannah is in rare company.

Perhaps the reason Elkanah has two wives is because “Hannah had no children (v 2).”  In a day when the success of your farm depended on having children, in a day when your future security depended on having children to take care of you in old age, in a day when passing on your name to future generations was important, not having children was a big deal.  And so when Hannah didn’t have children, Elkanah, as was the custom of the day, took a second wife, Peninnah, in order to create a large family.   

The names of Elkanah’s two are reflective of their character. 

Hannah means “gracious” or “favored.” Hannah certainly is Elkanah’s favorite—his first love and the joy his life—and he demonstrated that favor every year when the family went to Shiloh to worship and hold a feast, Elkanah gave her two servings of the food just to remind her how special she is to him. More importantly her name also foreshadows the grace and favor that God will show to her when he answers her prayer.

Although Hannah is favored in Elkanah’s sight, nevertheless, her financial security is tenuous at best.  With no children, when Elkanah dies, all of his inheritance will go to Peninnah and her children.  At that point, Hannah will be a widow on the street with no means of support. So although she is favored she also has a reason to be fearful.

Peninnah’s name, on the other hand, means “fertile” or “prolific” and it fits because she has many children.  Her future is secure.

But she’s also vindictive; she likes to torment Hannah because of her childlessness.  Perhaps, it’s plain jealousy, but it may also be our human nature to look down on others who don’t have as much as we do.  We treat life as a competition and if I have more than you, then I must be better than you.  This is why some people look down on those who can only get a minimum wage job and blame them for their own misery. The rich make themselves feel good by looking down on the underdog.  But let’s not be too hard on the rich because we all tend to do the same thing.  We think our good fortune is due to our own efforts and others’ bad fortune is their own fault, neither of which is true. 

One year everything came to a head.  Peninnah has been tormenting Hannah with little digs all the time they have been in Shiloh to worship the Lord. Finally, on the big day of the worship feast, Hannah breaks down and begins to weep.  It’s a very awkward moment for everyone around the table. Elkanah tries to comfort his wife, but he is kind of clueless.   Kathryn Schifferdecker says,

Elkanah is notable not only for his love for Hannah, but also for his inability to help her. When he does try to help, his words are ineffective: “Hannah, why do you weep? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8). [Yeah, like that’s gonna help.] One wonders whether it wouldn’t have been better to say, “Are not you more to me than ten sons?”

(Working Preacher, November 18, 2018)

Of course, as anyone who has dealt with the profound pain of infertility knows, all words are insufficient.  Perhaps it would have been better for Elkanah to say nothing, to go for a walk with her, away from the family, to hold her in his arms, and to weep together with her.

Hannah sat through the rest of the feast with red eyes staring off into the distance while turning inward with her thoughts.  She distanced herself emotionally from her pain and from her family.  Only after dinner did she escape to the tabernacle and pour her heart out to the Lord.

Hannah’s prayer is described in verse 9-12. 

Now I want you to notice several things about Hannah’s prayerFirst of all, it was intense.  Verse 10 says “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.”  This prayer came from the depths of her soul.  It contained all her grief, her hurt and, yes, even her bitterness.  She not only wept, but she wept bitterly.  Tony Evans, in his book The Power of the Names of God, says, “the worst turmoil of all often takes place in one’s own soul. This happens when you can’t seem to live with yourself, when your own pain, anxiety, depression, and regret eat you up, leaving you with an unsettled ache. You are at war within.”   (p. 101, quoted in Working Preacher, November 15, 20 Hannah was despised by Peninnah and misunderstood by Elkanah, but as she poured out her heart to the Lord, she found a solace.

Second, Hannah’s prayer was continual.  In verse 12 we read “[Hannah] continued praying before the Lord.”  This was not a one-off, a casual request, lightly made.  This was the deepest desire of her heart and she would not be satisfied until she poured all of it out.  This is important.  God doesn’t want a part of you; he wants all of you. And sometime the only way to give him all is by continuously praying. 

Third, Hannah was completely dedicated in her prayer. Verse 11 says ‘She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”’

There are several things to notice about this vow.  First, it is a nazirite vow.  A nazirite vow was a special promise that people made to dedicate themselves totally to the Lord.  Ordinarily it was for a certain length of time—a few weeks or a few months, or maybe for a year.  During that time the person who made the vow would not drink any alcohol or cut their head.   At the end of the vow, they offered a sacrifice at the place of worship, cut off their hair and returned to normal life.  The vow was a promise to be totally dedicated to the Lord.   The most famous nazirite, you may recall, was Sampson.  When Delilah cut off his hair Sampson lost his great strength and only when he rededicated himself to the Lord, did his strength return and he was able to defeat the Philistines one last time.  When Hannah made this vow on behalf of her desired son, she was dedicating him to the Lord for all of his life. 

Second, Hannah was unselfish in her prayer request; she had a bigger purpose than just her own happiness.  At the time of Hannah’s prayer, God’s people were in bad shape.  The people were not united either in their self-defense nor in the dedication to the Lord.  At the end of the book of Judges after describing some intertribal between all of Israel and Benjamin that almost resulted in the total destruction of one of the 12 tribes, the book concludes with these words, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  It was a time of anarchy and insecurity.

At the same time that this was happening the worship God at the Tabernacle was being corrupted.  A little later in the book of Samuel you can read about Eli’s two sons, who slept around with the women who helped with the worship and who dishonored the Lord, by taking the best parts of the sacrifices for themselves. 

Again this is something we still see in our day. Jerry Falwell, Jr., inherited his position at Liberty University from his father but in recent days he was caught in a tawdry affair involving his wife and her paramour. He also disgraced himself and his university by posting racist comments and memes on social media. As a result he recently resigned in disgrace. Well that’s what was happening with Eli’s two sons.

The nation needed a strong leader, one who could unite their defenses, one who could reform their corrupt worship practices and one who could prepare the way for the coming king. When Hannah prayed that was part of what she was asking for. One of my commentators notes, “Hannah prayed for a son to revive the truth in Israel and she gave him back to God. There had been a turning away from God, the light was going out and so Hannah’s prayer was for a son, for a seed of man to restore that light and to bring salvation to Israel.”  (Hannah and Mary, https://thebiblestudy.co.uk/study/hannah-mary/)

God answered her prayer and gave her a son whom she named Samuel.  And if you read the rest of the book of Samuel you will see just how pivotal he was to the history of Israel.  Through Hannah’s prayer God raised up a great leader who undid corruption in the worship, defeated the Philistine enemies of Israel, and eventually anointed David as king.  Without Samuel there would never be King David and without David there would never have been Christ.

Conclusion

At the beginning of this sermon I said “Hannah’s dream was to have son who would remove the grief and shame she felt from being barren.  But she also realized that God had a bigger dream.”  After Hannah had given Samuel back to God she sang a song of praise to the Lord in chapter 2.  We used a part of Hannah’s song as our call to worship.

This song became so important that parts of it were repeated in Psalm 113.  Indeed, it is so important that Mary models her song of praise, the Magnificat, on it. 

Hannah sings,

The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
    he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.[c]

And Mary echoes,

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

At the very end of Hannah’s song, we find these words.  The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”  The word anointed is the Hebrew word from which we get our word Messiah.  Because of Hannah, God used Samuel to anoint King David who is the forerunner of King Jesus, the true Messiah.  So we see Hannah was not just a bereft woman who was longing for a son; she was also a visionary who saw a day when the messiah would come to bring down the powerful and lift up the poor.  Hers was a big dream that God gave to her. Thanks be to God!

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